The best novels written in the present tense

The Books I Picked & Why

Rabbit, Run

By John Updike

Book cover of Rabbit, Run

Why this book?

The four Updike Rabbit novels are written in the present tense, which is uncommon for fiction but done to help bring more immediacy to the action. This causes the novels to read more like screenplays than when written in the past tense. I chose to write my own book in the present tense as a new challenge after reading all four Rabbit novels in succession. Updike was a master at getting into the interior lives of his characters, revealing their longings, typically not to be obtained. The character Rabbit is a wayward former high school basketball star who marries a childhood sweetheart and is gradually worn down over time by her mother and his own insouciance about everything. Rabbit is a sexist character and Updike wrote with truth about his many characters. 

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

By Ken Kesey

Book cover of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Why this book?

Ken Kesey was a student of Wallace Stegner, and Stegner did not think much of Kesey, who went on to write this classic within the stream of consciousness fiction movement. My own writing has been influenced by Wallace Stegner, and I can understand why he was not a fan of stream of consciousness fiction. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is written in the present tense, and this pioneering novel does as much as anything I can think of in convincingly blurring the lines between what we consider to be insanity and what is normal. Jack Nicholson starred in the very popular film made from this novel, and anyone who loved the movie but didn’t read the novel should take it for a test drive.

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Jane Eyre

By Charlotte Brontë

Book cover of Jane Eyre

Why this book?

Not all of this classic novel is written in the present tense, but the mixing of tense is an interesting technique, most likely due to the fact this was originally published under a pen name (as my Don Trowden also is) and is an example of a bildungsroman novel, or semi-autobiographical fiction. Few knew how to pull on our heartstrings like the great Victorian novelists, who oftentimes wrote about abandoned orphans, poverty, and life’s hardships. Bronte explores themes of Christian morality, class, sexuality, and feminism, and Jane Eyre is one of the most important novels written in paving the way for future female authors who were forced to take male pen names in order to be published in the nineteenth century.

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Bleak House

By Charles Dickens

Book cover of Bleak House

Why this book?

The omniscient narrator in this classic novel speaks to the reader in a dispassionate present-tense voice that helps reinforce the satirical tone and immediacy of the novel. Dickens, who grew up in a debtor’s prison and included his bleak observations of life in a debtor’s prison in many of his great novels, used his fiction to shine a light on the social injustices of Victorian life. Bleak House shines much of that light on the punitive legal system (sound like today?), which Dickens exposed in some of his other novels as well. In thinking about the many theatrical and film adaptations made of this novel, we can see how much easier that work was due to the present tense writing, which creates the immediacy and suspense found in many great films.

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The Hunger Games

By Suzanne Collins

Book cover of The Hunger Games

Why this book?

Suzanne Collins helped turn many a young person into an avid reader through her Hunger Games novels, which are written in the present tense. Like Dickens, these novels shed light on the ills of a corrupt society, in this case, set in the future, and like Dickens the author creates highly dramatic scenes that keep readers turning the pages in a feverish flow. Collins creates highly sympathetic characters struggling to survive within an evil world, in the tradition of great heroes overcoming obstacles, such as what is seen in The Iliad and The Odyssey. And, as is true of so many of the great Victorian novels, this present tense writing translates beautifully to the big screen in keeping viewers on the edge of their seats.

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